January 2013 Archives

"The Strategy was flawless, but I could not get anything done."

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In his Digital Transformation Blog entry on "The Strategy is Delivery," Mike Bracken quotes one of his predecessors describing his frustrations in trying to implement the then Government Data Strategy: "The Strategy was flawless, but I could not get anything done".  It reminded me of the old cry: "there was nothing wrong with the system. it was the users". 

As a trainee programmer (in spring 1969), I was told by the DP manager to write a project management (alias reporting) system for the department. It did all he asked, but no-one would use it and he would not order them to. I was upset. The rest of the department knew that my system was never expected to go live. He and they had "merely" wanted to see if their first ever graduate trainee could produce a working system that did what the users said they wanted: from design and specification to working code and sucessful test running. They also wanted to see how long it would take me to realise why no-one would actually use it for real.

It was not until they relented and told me in the pub that I realised it had been my "apprentice masterpiece" (beautiful but useless) before being trusted with an arms length, unsupervised job that actually mattered to the department and to those who had taught me. I had not actually been banished in disgrace when I was assigned to support the auditors with ad hoc file matching and analysis programmes as they crawled over our production control and product costing systems (with their duplicated and semi-incompatible part number file, product structures and time costs) to produce a "real" value of the work-in-progress. That was also intended as the next step in my "education" - to understand just how dodgy our data was and why.

Forty years on I watch the growing disconnect between Cabinet Office (and its Government Digital  Service) and the rest of the Civil Service (and the Great Departmental Delivery Silos with a sense of deja vu. It is "merely" a phase in a ten year cycle that I am now seeing for the fourth time. That cycle appears to mirror the centuries old "Trade Cycle" of boom and bust which Gordon Brown was going to abolish, like Keynes and others before him.

I am told that, as part of the next round of "reforms", the GDS and GPS are about to mandate the use of agile technologies adminstered via a single OJEU advertised framework contract with a third party consultancy. I assume that will, in practice, operate in a similar way to the framework for Civil Service learning . The latter will soon be able to report significant "savings" by making it nigh on impossible to get customised training through the gateway process for delivery when when and where it is actually needed. Departments will therefore stop wasting time trying. [I hope that does not mean they will also stop trying to train their staff in the skills they so departately need].

This raises the interesting question of whether the other "savings" reported  in the recent National Audit Office report on the "Impact of Government ICT Savings Initiatives" represent improved value for money or merely cuts. Does the report indicate success or failure? Like many NAO reports, it is dry and equivocal while revealing the questions that should be asked to those who have been guided where to look. Do read - and enjoy [assuming you have same dry sense of humour as myself].  

An old friend recently reminded me of the importance of looking at the small print and foot notes in NAO reports. Thus a report issued in December revealed that DWP had switched from quarterly to six monthly reviews. "The Department originally planned to release data on the Programme - referrals, attachments and outcomes - every quarter. When it released the first set of outcome data on 27 November 2012, it announced that outcome statistics would be released on a six-monthly cycle - the next set would therefore be released on 28 May 2013. The Department would then realign publication of referral and attachment data so that it is released alongside outcome data on the date. The Department indicated that it was not possible to align the validation procedures for outcome data with a quarterly publication schedule."

I am trying to work out if this also implies that there
will be no report of the experience from the Universal Credit "pathfinders" [due to start in April] before the commencement of live running, [due in October]. The new CIO, Philip Langdale died before he was able to complete his review of the programme, including the monitoring and progress reporting procedures.

In this context it might be worth quoting an earlier NAO report "The Department will also not be able to use its IT support to generate management information on how many job and sustainment outcomes the Work Programme, or individual providers, are delivering until September 2012 at the earliest. (Page 8, Para 15). There are also comments like:"The Department estimates that it will make payments to prime contractors of £60 million (excluding VAT) based only on a simple check that the claim is reasonable. In the period from March to May 2012 there will be a full reconciliation of payments made and providers will have to pay back any claimed inappropriately. In the meantime there is an increased risk of fraud and error."  and "The Department's processes for developing the IT system were slower than the speeded-up processes for managing the rest of the Work Programme. The Department should identify the main lessons from this and, in line with current good practice, should adopt a more agile and timely approach to managing IT"

At this point I will make a distinction between "agile management", "agile procurement" and agile methodologies for producing trial systems. All three have weaknesses as well as strengths when it comes to large organisations with multiple stakeholders who will not simplify and prioritise their needs to facilitate the incremental approach that is essential to success if thousands, or ten of thousands of staff are to be trained, motivated and enthused into new ways of working.

If I were in the shoes of the Minister I would use the death of the CIO, after the departure of so many near the top of the previous programme management team, as the trigger for a thorough review - with the setting of any new date for live running announced only after the lessons have been learned from the "pathfinders". That may not, in practice lead to much end-over-delay in achieving the benefits because there is so much essential good work which can continue in parallel: cleaning files, removing opportunities for fraud, expediting payment when fraud is unlikely and removing unnecessary complexity.

The most intersting problem is who to ask to conduct the review. The answer has to be some-one with experience of running major programmes which depend on the expected performance of partners over whom you have little or no control (from HMRC to UK Borders and from Local Authorities to employers, large and small).

The nearest relevant UK programme was indeed that of overhauling the systems of a major airport. His BAA experience, including having to interface with the systems of the airlines and freight forwarding operations. made Philip Langdale uniquely qualified for the job of DWP CIO. Then next was probably the transition of the UK payments system to on-line networks using internet protocols. But that was "simple" by comparison. Or to be more precise, the banks "conspired" to make it simple because failure was not an option for any of them.

How does one engineer such a "conspiracy" (to acheive success at all costs) across the tribes of Whitehall?

The best answer I have seen was a CIO Council, with most members having many years experience as public servants (its a cultural "thing" which does not confuse "innovation" with being "entrepreneurial"). Perhaps more important was that most reported to Permanent Secretaries with whom they had worked off and on - as each made their way up the various trees in the jungle until they could swing from branch to branch, like Tarzan, near the top. 

At this point you will begin to appreciate why I can sympathise with, but not entirely share, the frustration expressed in Mike Bracken's Digital Transformation Blog and by his colleagues and predecessors in Cabinet Office and Number 10. I do not entirely share it because, despite what some readers may think, I also have great sympathy for those responsible for running the great Departmental Silos on which Government depends, while kowtowing to the enthusiasms of the current minister. Some of mandarins have been quietly setting their houses in order over recent years - developing in-house programme, project and change management skills for when the cycle runs its course and they are allowed to kick out the contractors and consultants and reform themselves.                

Only then are we likely to get the hybrid approaches necessary to use agile approaches to building the dams, slipways, tunnels and generators necessary to harness, not just control, waterfalls.

Your chance to have a say on UK Standards for Information Security Skills

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e-Skills has issued an invitation to input into the public consultation for the development of the UK's NOS (National Occupational Standards for Information Security (aligned to the IISP Information Security Skills Framework) and to participate in a NOS consultation workshop on Jan 31.

The draft standards can be found here

This consultation should also be seen as an opportunity to input your views on the information security skills needs that you need (or will need in future) as an employer or as an individual, whether or not you can see how these fit within the draft NOS frameworks or those of IISP.

e-Skills is working to ensure that its wider portfolio of security related programmes is driven by employer needs, just government policy and the business models of self-funding accreditation and funding agencies. Inputs which do not fit this consultation may well therefore prove invaluable as inputs to its other exercises.

Meanwhile they are seeking inputs from as wide a range of potential users of the new standards as practical. There will be a workshop for those with recognised industry experience in central London on the afternoon of Thursday 31st January but they are also welcoming comments by e-mail. The agenda for the workshop will cover:

·         e-skills UK's Cyber Security activities

·         Summary results from an employer survey of Information Security skills needs related to NOS

·         NOS overview and e-skills UK role

·         Break-out sessions  

·         Overview of draft IS NOS and linkage to IISP

·         A detailed look at the NOS content

·         Future Actions & Next steps

Those wishing to attend or having questions should contact nigel.payne@e-skills.com 

Those not wishing to attend but wishing to input should do so in advance or during the week afterwards.

As part of the approvals process for NOS they need to provide evidence of consultation. A list of those providing feedback will be maintained and made available to the approval panel. This list will not be made public but in order to ensure that the new NOS are widely accepted they wish to be able to use attributable quotes from inputs,  including on their website, when promoting the NOS.

Those of you who have never heard of the National Occupational Standards and have no idea how they are used should read on. The description will also help you to understand the gulf between the courses run by the FE and HE sectors and those run by commercial training providers. Robust inputs from employers on their needs are essential to filling the gap to the benefit of UK plc.  

About the National Occupational Standards (NOS) generally

NOS provide UK-wide, demand-led, evidence-based benchmarks of competent performance which underpin vocational learning and development, apprenticeships and qualifications across all sectors, occupations and parts of the UK. They encompass the employability skills of self-management and organisation of work, thinking through and solving problems, working with others, communicating effectively and understanding the business.

NOS are used by Awarding Organisations/Bodies (AO/Bs), Further Education (FE) and Higher Education (HE) institutions, professional bodies and private training organisations as benchmarks from which to develop programmes of learning and qualifications. They are also used by organisations to support human resource management and organisational development processes. In some sectors, demonstration of competence against NOS is required in order to run a business or practice a craft or profession.

Over the past 25 years, National Occupational Standards (NOS) have been the mechanism for ensuring that vocational education, training and qualifications equip the workforce with the skills the economy requires. A third of the workforce now holds a qualification based on NOS, nearly two million people have completed or are currently on apprenticeships and many millions more are following learning and development programmes designed to meet the requirements of NOS.

Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) and other standards setting organisations work continuously with employers and other key partners to develop and refine NOS in order to express and present current and projected industry requirements in ways which are immediately accessible to workers in their sectors/occupations. There are NOS covering virtually all functions carried out in the workplace today - a truly unique resource with the potential to focus the efforts of employers, workers and educationalists to develop the skills required to increase the UK's productivity and competitiveness and ensure the individuals' employability.

More information can be found here 

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Will 2013 be the year HMG takes skills, including those of the Civil Service, seriously

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Politicians have mouthed words about the importance of skills for many decades, often throwing funding at education providers. It is over a decade since the last serious IT training programme: that for 40,000 millennium bugbusters to receive quality controlled, industry standard, hands-on, courses on basic micro-processor maintenance and updating so that they could also check and fix clock and date chips. We have also heard much about the need to improve the professionalism of the public sector and there are enquiries by the Public Administration Select Committee into the future of the Civil Service and the reform of public sector procurement processes. Both are welcome, if overdue, but neither looks at the failure to implement the Fulton Report and how the current situation arises naturally from having one of the best educated but least trained public services in the world.

For example, few senior servants have ever received practical training, let alone supervised experience, in the assembly, testing and analysis of evidence to develop or review a policy proposal, let alone to plan or monitor its implementation. An Oxbridge style education, developing barrister like skills in assembling and defending weekly essays or a grounding in the basics of economic, engineering, mathematical or scientific approaches to problem solving, plus the occasional short course, is assumed to be sufficient to enable them to acquire the other skills they need by a process of osmosis .

Hence the vulnerability of Civl Servants, like their political masters, to collective delusions, alias "big ideas". One example might be the "self evident need for a national patient record available on-line to almost any medical practitioner, which is also secure, reliable and up-to-date.  Another is, of course, the equivalent for some-one claiming to be in need of benefit. And, of course, we have a queue of suppliers and consultants eager to reinforce those delusions, offering PFI deals to anyone who will listen if the Treasury is empty. 

Back in 1973, (when I joined the team to produce a computer development strategy for the "about to be formed" Regional Water Authorities" under a Mintech strategic planning contracts), I was dismayed that the very bright young Assistant Principal who had been assigned to help with inputs from the Department of the Environment appeared unwilling to provide any of the back-up to the policy documents I was expected to work from. In particular I wanted the analyses of what the new Authorities were expected to look like, based on the functions they would be taking over. My father, an Assistant Secretary in another Department told me these were unlikely to exist. He said I should buy time to assemble what I thought they should look like and then ask for comment on what I had been able to produce. Since I had just joined the team (my first role after ICL had sponsored me on the London Business School Master's Programme) I asked the programme manager if I could spend four weeks "reading my way in". I was allowed two.

I collected IMTA Municipal Year Books, River Board and Nature Conservancy Accounts etc. etc. and assembled national totals and authority averages to draft a model of an average Regional Water Authority . I then obtained appointments with the Treasurers of a Nature Conservancy, Water Company and a joint Water and Sewerage Board to review what I had done - as a lead in to obtaining their views. They were most helpful because I had tried to do my homework in advance. They also briefed me on how the different authorities rigged their returns so as to determine their positions in the league tables or bid for extra resources. That enable me to adjust accordingly. I then went back to the Department and asked if my analyses tallied with their figures. I was told they looked reasonable. A year later I saw my figures in a ministerial briefing as the authoritative departmental figures.

I have regularly had similar experiences over the subsequent forty years. The refusal to answer questions about business cases nearly always masks ignorance, not muddle,  conflict or conspiracy.  In consequence I am unable to take a departmental "business case" any more seriously than those assembled by most Think Tanks.

That s sad because so many of the best of my peers at University, with whom I struggled to keep up in joint tutorials or late night arguments, went into the Service. More-over its intake is still, by and large, significantly more intelligent and better educated than those who join the City, major law firms, accounting practices or consultancies, let alone those who go into business, industry or politics. But, except perhaps for politics, the latter then invest heavily in training and professional development.  

My criticism of the calling notices for the PASC enquiries is that they contain no questions on the skills and training given to Civil Servants to enable them to do their current roles, let alone to handle the waves of change over recent years or those to come. At the simplest level: how many accounting officers have an accounting qualification of any type (financial or management)?  But it is not just the specialist who lack specialist skills. The generalists need the equivalent of what we learned at London Business School, particularly the basic professional skills necessary to enable us to spot bullshit across every discipline we were likely to face.

The Civl service training programmes may have been deifcient but they now appear to have been demolished with no effective replacement. The theoretical needs analyses of recent years were overtaken by structural change before they were used and the Civil Service Learning framework has led merely to a collapse of delivery with a "gateway" routine that is said make it almost impossible to obtain training when and where needed, unless it happens to be covered by one of the standard on-line modules. That framework is also a tragic comment on the lack of procurement skills of central government. The targetted savings will be achieved by the indefinite postponment of in-house training - presumably leading to further outsourcing to those employing individuals from overseas with impressive credentials which are worth no more than the paper on which they are no longer printed.               

Data Protection wars - what is at stake for whom under the new EU Directive

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A recent Spiegel (German perspective but written in English) article gives an excellent layman's summary of the strategic divides in the debate over the new Data Protection Directive. The trench warfare is very much messier as the lobbyists fight battles of attrition until the budgets of those representing SME or consumer interests are exhausted but the view from twenty thousand feet helps show what the "General's" have in mind on this sector of the "Western Front": the struggle to make a reality of the Digital Single Market.

Meanwhile on-line business, including the processing of personal data by both public and private sectors, is increasingly routed via the US or India and the revenues taken in whatever politically stable trading location offers the most attractive mix of tax, confidentiality and security. 

What therefore should be the views of those who really do want a measure of control over their personal data?

Who do not trust their own government or their Doctors' receptionist with their data?

Who do not want it accessable to US lawyers, the Federal government and its suppliers or sold by the staff of an Indian call centre?

Who do not want to see the shops in their high street closed down because they cannot compete with those dodging VAT and Business Rates, let alone Corporation tax by routing UK transactions via a mix of Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta and the Channel and Cayman Islands? 

Watch what is about to happen when IT meets politics in the real world of recession.

Spiegel has done a good job looking at the battlefield from 20,000 feet but now take a look at the view from a spy satellite: the strategic positioning as Governments discover that World War 3, in Cyberspace, is under way and has many fronts: not just denial of service, industrial espionage, IPR theft and fraud. Governments are discovering that they have to compete for the taxable revenue streams they need in order to survive, let alone for the tax generating industies and jobs of the future that they need in order to thrive.

In that context "On-line Free Trade" is as helpful and meaningful (or not) as "Free Trade". We should, however, also note that in the World Economic Forum "Global Enabling Trade Report" the US comes below most of the Nordic nations (including the UK and Germany) and just above France. The idea that an US-centric Internet might be a bastion of "freedom" or of "free trade",  probably died with the Patriot Act , including its controls over money laundering.

In summary, the Spiegel Article is most helpful, but is still myopic - like most techno-centric visions.

So what sparked this blog?

Two days ago I was asked to lecture to an "IT Leaders" Master's Course at a leading University. The audience are mainly the next-generation CIOs of major organisations (already in senior planning or delivery roles) spending their week-ends discussing the problems they already face, let alone those to come. I therefore dusted off my script  on why CIOs have to take the politics of IT seriously if they are to win a place on the main board and help their organisation survive and thrive despite the crass, confused and conflicting political, regulatory and fiscal regimes within which it has to operate. Then I received an FIPR alert copmmending the Spiegel Article - and thought about adding it to the advance reading list.

On monday I am due to chair the first meeting of the executive of the Conservative Technology Forum meeting in 2013, including a review of the programme of policy studies. Central to that programme will be not only the need to encourage players like Facebook, Google, IBM and Microsoft to treat the UK as a profit centre (where key functions are based, staff employed and taxes paid) but also to attract and foster their future competitors from around the world and grow our own. "Free trade" may be a meanlingless mantra but "mere protectionism" is almost always self-defeating and "enlightened self interest" requires an understanding of how the world works as well as of what is at stake for others, not just your own organisation.  Hence also the need for robust inputs to EU regulatory debate if we are not to be better off by leaving. Perhaps, however, the best argument against leaving is that the bureaucrats in Westminster are no better than the eurocrats in Brussels - the only "real" difference is that the latter can obfuscate and produce meaningless compromises in more languages.   

US teleworker caught subcontracting his own job to China - is this the future ?

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Do read the story on the BBC website this morning. The comments on the original blog case study say sufficient on the questions this raises - including that he was working in parallel for other similar employers and very highly rated by all for his efficiency and productivity. Was he engaged in good old fashioned US enterprise or in a criminal breach of security? And what taxes was he paying on his earnings? To which government(s)?

Yesterday I was being told how far behind the curve HMG was in its approaches to on-line security compared to the leading banks - where 60% of serious on-line fraud is said to involve insiders and who therefore now seek to monitor everything that accesses their sytems (globally and not just in the UK) for "anomalies". But how many routinely routinely analyse the logs, let alone retain them they might be needed for o operational purposes. Where does that leave the HMG UK-centric on-line surveillance policy?

But the story raises are wider and even more intersting issues. It was around thirty years ago that Adrian Norman and myself first talked of the need for Governments to plan ahead for when it would be commonplace for teleworkers to work simultaneously for different employers around the world, physically commuting dependent on time of year (UK for spring, New England for the Fall etc.), family commitments, needs for physical meetings and, of course, tax "planning".

We argued that politicians should not fight the future. Instead they should seek to ensure that the UK tax and regulatory regimes encouraged such workers to base their families and tax affairs in the UK because it was the best place to rear children, grow old and enjoy life in between - while accepting that, like colonial administrators and the internations merchants, traders and international salesmen who ran the Empire and made Britain the workshop of the world, they would spend their working lives globe trotting: whether on line or clocking up air miles.

Interestingly the story refers to Verizon detecting the "abuse" (if abuse it was). Its mobile partner, Vodafone is probably the company best prepared for providing the ubiquitous, seamless, global broadband infrastructure. Analysts and commentators who value it little more thans its 45% share of the Verizon Wireless (before removing capital gains liabilities etc.) tend to forget that it now owns the global Cable & Wireless submarine networks and much of the UK broadband backbone (including the former Government Data Network). The communications duopoly of BT and Virgin will turn into a triumvirate quite soon as the Vodafone/O2 infrastructure sharing deal gathers pace. Competition will then grow as Arqiva (and its "siblings", also funded by Macquarry and Canadian pension funds) do deals.

Apparently the main obstacle to Vodafone obtaining a £60 -70 billion war chest to enable it become the leading global (not just UK and EU) fixed and mobile infrastructure player is the capital gains bill it would face after selling out it share of the US mobile operations. What a sorry comment that is on the effect of Government fiscal policy in distorting investment decisions that could enable the UK to once again become the workshop of the world (this time the on-line world) at no expense to the taxpayer.  

P.S. It has been said this was not a teleworker because he was supposedly seen sitting at his desk all the time. Many organisations routinely monitor teleworkers over webcams, inclduidng for positive reasons such as maintaining social contact. There is also a vigorous debate as to whether this is a real case study or a pastiche. Either way, it is a good lead in to debate. See also Karl Flinders comments

Why changing your on-line "shop" should be no harder than changing your supermarket

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I blogged yesterday on the implications of the split of priorities between access to broadband and protecting the environment as revealed in the recent Policy Exchange report. Today I would like to expand on why I think Dido Harding was correct when she used the presentation meeting to call for more to be done to prevent the slide back into duopoly. She asked how many of the audience had shopped in more than one, two or three supermarkets in the previous week and how many had changed broadband supplier in that week. The latter question was not quite right. She should have asked how many of us had used more than one broadband supplier in the previous week.

My family is lucky, we have a choice of Tesco, Sainsbury, Co-op and Iceland within easy walking distance. Most days we shop in BOTH Co-op and Iceland (prices on some items differ by 20% or more) but we get most of our fruit and vegetables from a family stall which has been at the end of the street for over 80 years. Most weeks we also shop in Sainbury's and occasionally in Tesco. Many in rural areas have no more choice of supermarket than of communicaitons supplier: it is Tesco or a very long drive. Tesco also has a market share akin to that of BT's share of the broadband market (if you include Vodafone, EE and the other suppliers of "ubiquitous broadband"). 

We are also lucky in that we also have choice of broadband suppliers. Many years ago I took the view that the time and accountant fees involved in arguing with HMRC on how to split the cost of shared domestic/business services was greater than the cost of duplication. Last year we therefore used five landline-based services (from three suppliers), three contract and three pay as you go wireless services (from two suppliers), one satellite service and paid subscriptions a variety of ISPs for e-mail, security etc - as well as the usual "freebies". Leaving aside the duplication caused by the split between business and domestic services, our actual usage is determined by what is available over which service at what cost (e.g. different availablity and pricing of premium content) and by geographic cover (different services have different hotspots and notspots on their wifi/mobile cover).

I recently dropped one of the broadband land-line services, rather than spend a day or so playing around with different routers and filters in order to be able to blag an engineer to call to find out why it had failed. We will therefore be reliant on mobile/wifi services if BT Infinity goes down, unless and until I contract another broadband landline service - if I do. As market and services structures (and family needs) evolve I would like to further rationalise and get better value from the £thousands a year that we spend on fixed and mobile communications services and content: in that total I include the BBC license fee, the family Sky Subscription, the costs I expect my wife to run up on her new pay-as-you-go smart phone (as my son instructs her on what she can do) alongside the various domestic and business service contracts and payments for Internet downloads and other premium rate services.

In the ideal world, I would like delivery contracts with two or three high street supermarkets so that we still shop around when we are too frail to physically travel. I would similarly wish connectivity  and support  contracts with two or three communications services, so that I am never likely to be completely "off air" and can also pick and mix my daily on-line "shopping" for content, products and services according to which is most accessible and/or best value from which access provider,  when, where and over which device(s) I am going on-line. I have yet to match my son who cannot get Virgin or BT Infinity in his flat in Wapping but whose smartphone and laptop seem to roam across access services and wifi networks according to where he is and what he wants to access. I have yet to ask ask him how much he pays over and above his mobile and landline contracts. I am, however, convenced that I need to make time to learn how he has achieved it.

 In looking at the potential choice of communications services for most consumers, the UK has not only BT, Virgin and their various infrastructure resellers (in which category I would include players like Talk Talk) but also EE, Sky and Vodafone (all building up their landline as well as radio and satellite infrastructures). We should also remember that only the resellers of services from players like Avanti and Inmarsat provide truly national cover (no not-spots unless you live at the foot of a hill without line of sight to their satellites). For business, there are also players, like Colt and Reuters providing services to most major financial centres.

And why should we not also have a kaleidoscope of local players providing integrated support to both public and private sector business users as well as access to local communities. I therefore look forward to seeing the EU give short shrift to BT and Virgin for trying to block Birmingham's attempt to give communications connectivity to firms in the Jewelry quarter and Digbeth communications services that are at least comparable to those available to their overseas competitors - and preferably as far in the lead as they were when they were (for most of the 19th and early 20th centuries) suppliers of high precision, low cost, component manufacture and of innovative products and services to most of the world. I hope the result also gives other councils the confidence to act on the UK "market failure" and compete with each other (as well as the rest of the world) with regard to the provision of business (as opposed to consumer) broadband.

I would, however, also wish to highlight our current inability (whether as consumers or as businesses) to choose between price and quality and continuity of service. The latter is one of the factors which also determines where my wife and I spend our money in the high street When I started working from home (late 1980s) I paid £1,000 a year for an eight hour call out service from the best of the support operations we found when I ran the NCC Microsystems Centre. By the time I first needed a call out, nearly four years later, that service had been taken over three times and I had to wait two days. I did not bother to renew. By contrast my photocopier/laser printer provider (with whom I have had a contract for over 20 years) has always managed to get an engineer to me inside 24 hours. I therefore remain happy to pay their charges, even though most years I call on them only when I need toner packs in the post.

When it comes to domestic appliances and plumbing I have, however,  come to wonder if the various "insurance" contracts are worth cost. I live in an old house and rationalised onto one maintenance supplier expecting integrated service. But their failure to cover the cost when their serviceman condemned the flue on our central heating boiler which led me to re-read the small print, inclduidng of  the appliance cover, plus the response time offered on our last leak (I called Pimlico instead of wait) made me wonder if it is worth renewing. 

I want my short-list of communications suppliers to provide a call-out service akin to that provided by Pimlico Plumbers, even if they also charge me call-out and item of service fees that are only refunded if the fault is theirs. I know that the Policy Exchange report shows that most consumers put price above reliability (which I will use as a proxy for quality of service). But the gap is not great. More-over reliabilty comes above speed except for the urban young (see page 40 and 41).    

In short, Dido Harding was right. Do watch the video of the Policy Exchange meeting, including the bluster of the public affairs lobbyist who disagreed with her (comes about 45 minutes into the video, ten minutes after I asked the first question, quoting Bill Jones, "more bottlenecks than a brewery" comment to break that awkward pause that comes at the end of most really good panel discussions).   

P.S. I have no problem with signing 3 - 5 year contracts for basic connectivity  provided that I can vary my annual top up spend according to the volumne of traffic I put over the network and the quality of service and support I receive. I have no wish to rely on advertising funded services because I have no real confidence in the ability of the underlying business model to fund the resilience and quality of service needed for a critical utility  

Midsomer Murders: The Broadband Killings

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The feud turned to slaughter after Mavis Goodenough, the Wiccan High Priestess of Midsomer Harvest died of septicaemia after stepping on one of the mantraps protecting the poles of the overhead fibre link from the server in the Snug of the Fig and Femto to the wireless mast beside the changing hut at the Foggy Bottom playing fields.

The choice between cheap ubiquitous broadband today (with overhead spaghetti between cottages and femtos on every pole) and expensive, limited access, underground connectivity tomorrow had set wives against husbands and grandparents against grandchildren, less alone businessmen, farmers and sportsmen against tree-huggers, nimbies and the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England [see pages 42 and 47 of The Superfast and the Furious for the priorities between communications connectivity and preserving the environment by age, sex. location etc.].
Most felt the trouble began when the Cricket, Darts and Football teams allied with the Young Farmers and Golf Clubs to outvote the alliance of the Mothers Union, Age Concern and Friends of the Earth. The Britsih Legion split and the Scouts were too young to vote. In consequence the Parish Council agreed to accept the bid from "Gigabit's 'R Us" to provide ubiquitous broadband (fixed and mobile) to the entire valley using overhead fibre and femtos for under a £million, instead of waiting two years for the opportunity to bid for a grant towards the cost of a £multi-million underground service under the post 2015 rural broadband upgrade framework.

The vicar tried to hold the peace but lost his credibility after it was discovered that Cawston Estates had paid for the bell tower of St Gabriel's to be restored, including with the power supplies and wiring necessary to act as an MMDS hub. They also underwrote the estimates of take-up, in return for their business park on RAF Midsomer being covered by the service.  

Inspector Barnaby's wife, however, blamed the blogger who first suggested that Government should devolve planning decisions on broadband to local communities. It was not as though he did not know what he doing.  

The presentation meeting on Thursday for the Policy Exchange study, The Superfast and Furious, was lively and informative. Ed Vaizey was well-informed as well as witty. I was delighted that Chris Yiu covered the concerns raised in my critique of the report . Dido Harding (Talk Talk) made some excellent points on the need for effective competition if we are to expect market forces to deliver. Steve Unger set me wondering whether I need to eat my words regarding some of the my criticisms of Ofcom. Do watch the video.

I was, however, struck by the myopic tunnel vision of some of the audience - evidenced either by their questions or in discussion afterwards.

Some thought Dido Harding was absurd in envisioning a world where it is as easy to change broadband suppliers as it is to change supermarket. I do not think that is any more absurd than a world in which it appears to be easier to change supplier than to get service.

Some had no grasp of the demands generated by teenagers using video-enabled smartphones for social networking or of the needs of the two million SMEs who employ 40% of the private sector workforce for symmetric connectivity, if they are to use the Internet to do business on-line without have to "give away" between 30 and 70% of the gross to a mix of  advertising, hosting and transaction processing operations (many based outside the UK) while not receiving the support or protection (e.g. against fraud or impersonation) they might reasonably expect in return. 

Some had no grasp of the political consequences of the nature of the split between those who give priority to broadband connectivity (the young, men and business) and those who oppose overhead lines and fear radio masts (the old and women). They thought that tweaking planning regulations to exempt equipment below a given visual impact or "power" will be "the answer".

I said at the time that I saw the plot for a Midsomer Murder story. Hence first half of this entry.

I also realised that I need to qualify my criticism of New Labour and Ofcom for dropping duopoly in favour of promoting local loop unbundling. The Cable Companies were heading for bankrupcy when they did so. It can therefore be argued that the duopoly was already all but dead. They therefore preserved "competition", albeit at the cost of halting BT's fibre roll out and delaying the provision of broadcast quality video to most of the UK by over a decade.

Current policy appears to be based on a re-creation of duopoly (BT and Virgin) for long after the period when the policies on which I worked in the 1980s assumed we would have made the transition to full competition (aided by falling costs and ubiquitous wireless) across most of the UK. Tomorrow I plan to blog on why I do not think this is a good idea and why I support Dido Harding's vision of a world in which it is as easy to switch your spend between communications suppliers just as you do between the supermarkets in which you shop. [that is unless another topic gets in the way - or I "get a life" instead].

Superslow and even more furious: the PX Report is a Curate's Egg

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The Policy Exchange report "The Superfast and the Furious" published today makes some excellent points and should be read in full. The headline points in the synopsis illustrate how far Ofcom has fallen short of its statutory duties as stated in the Communication Act 2003 rather than on its website - where it leaves out all of Section 4, presumably because it does not regard the views of consumers (and the other items listed) as relevant to the "things" it is required to "secure" under Section 2.

I agree the main thrust of the report but have four main quibbles, beginning with the acceptance of 2Mbps as a baseline metric. The pre-1997 definition of broadband was the bandwidth necessary to carry broadcast quality full motion video. This was watered down to "always on Internet" under New Labour (at one time there was an attempt to define 125kbs as "broadband"). I do not know if the authors have tried to watch BBC iPlayer over a rural "up to 2Mpbs" Broadband service. I used to have problems with a suburban service supposedly running at 4 - 5 Mbps. If there is to be a metric it should be based on the quality of service delivered and received. The BBC iPlayer might well be a component in the test package, perhaps alongside access to a selection of Government information and transaction services. As well stated in the first sentance of the synopsist, we need to get away form the obsession with nominal speed. 

My other concerns are about the meaning and practicality of some of the main recommendations but first I would like to give some well deserved praise ...  

What marks the Policy Exchange report out from the field (it contains a summary of most of the industry and government funded Broadband reports in recent years) is the findings from the survey of consumer and small firms views carried out by Ipsos MORI . I was surprised that as many as a third are confident they can choose the best deal: but most deals merely repackage unbundled lines, a service relationship with BT Openreach and a "free download" allowance. When it comes to a mobile deal I have yet to fund an assistant who can tell me the difference so I stick with the ones that have given me the fewest problems. I too haven't a clue what my data usage is (except when I go on-line over a mobile network from outside the UK and the bill comes as a nasty shock) so I was not surprised that so few felt able to estimate this.

The breakdown of the trade-off between price, speed and reliability by age and location is interesting. Those aged under 25 (whose social lives are now networked) put speed above price as well as above reliablity - but are (of course) lost without their connection. Older age groups and those outside urban areas put reliability above speed. It is also helpul to look in detail at the split between those who are concerned to see better cover and those who wish to protect their neighbourhood from masts, cabinets and overhead lines: a breakdown of the equal divide shows (unsurprsingly) that the heavy users, men and the young give priority to cover. Light users, women and those over 65 do not. This means that no politician standing for election can afford to make a choice. The main item in the "streamlined planning process" that Policy Exchange recommends should therefore be provision for Urban Wards and Parish Councils to allow neighbours to fight their battles locally. Anything else is likely to be as streamlined and efficient as something designed by Heath Robinson

This lead me to comment on the other headline recommendations -

but first I would like to point out that the data (page 47) shows a clear split of priorities between consumers and business. Business puts a premium on speed. That this is even higher in urban areas. Business also gives investment in communications priority over rail, airports and everything except roads. The report also indicates that over 80% of business (albeit lower in rural areas with poor access) communicates with customers on-line but less than 40% allow on-line payments, ordering or booking-line. It talks of the need to help and encourage them but of the reason preventing or detering them. This is a most important area for follow up. It is also why I agree strongly with overall approach of putting broadband into mainstream market-driven economic context.

The recommendation that Government should be "more relaxed about developing government digital services that require a broadband connection" and should not delay the "Digital by Default" agenda appears to be at variance with the clear priority given by both consumers and bsuiness to ensuring broader access.  I would argue that the natural conclusion from the survey data was that those progressing the "Digital by Default" agenda should give much greater priority to ensuring that their target audiences have the access necessary to use the services that they are seeking to put on-line. This applies particularly to the Charity Commission, DEFRA and DWP. All three are noted for requiring those living in rural areas with poor physical transport to use on-line services that they cannot reliably access outside the county town or the nearest City.

The recommendation for a stronger role for the Minister responsible for broadband begs the question as to who that should be. I would argue that they should also have responsibility for the public sector network (where HMGs current and potential spend as a customer dwarfs that doled out via BDUK et al) and for communications as part of the Critical National Infrastructure. That would mean eitehr prising critical standards (including inter-operability) and security functions these out of the hands of Cabinet Office, CESG, CPNI, DECC - or giving the minister (and their team) the necessary to cut across boundaries.

I do not blame Chris Yiu and Sarah Fink for ducking these particular issues and am therefore happy to give the report 8/10. A good use of the material available and a more valuable contribution to policy debate than most of the reports listed from pages 32 - 37 added together.       .

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When buying over the Internet is MORE expensive: Is 2013 the year for a little more on-line honesty ?

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The Post Code Penalty report by Citizens Advice Scotland should be read by those who wax lyrical about the rise in Internet shopping on Boxing Day because bargain hunters could not get into London because of the unholy alliance between ASLEF, TfL and ISPA The delivery penalty imposed on deliveries to those who live in rural areas by on-line retailers who do not offer the option of delivery by Royal Mail can more than wipe out the savings from shopping on-line. 

It is not just HMRC who are being ripped off by VAT, Corporation Tax and Business Rates dodgers. Perhaps worse, the penalties for the million or so Scots (and unknown number of inhabitants or rural England and Wales) affected may not become apparent until the goods do not arrive and the purchaser has fought their way through opaque complaints procedures to discover that the goods are sitting in a haulage depot awaiting payment of an unpublicised surcharge.

The cause merits investigation by the OFT and/or Ofcom accompanied by co-ordinated and systemic enforcement action by Trading Standards . The consequences should also give for thought to those seeking to drive through the privatisation of Royal Mail, despite apparent opposition from the majority of voters (although only the SNP and CWU are going public on the root reason for that opposition). We should not forget that Ofcom's primary responsibility is the citizen/consumer interest (Communications Act 2003, General Duties 3 (1) and also (4) (k) and (l). It may, of course, be that Ofcom does not regard the views of those in rural areas as "relevant" and believes some-one else should take action against those selling over the Internet in breach of of the Distance Selling Regulations (2000), summarised in more readable form on the OFT Website. My previous blogs on the Nominet consultation on the future of .uk (not just yesterday when I was being measured and responsible but my earlier venting of spleen) are also relevent. Who has (or should have) the responsibility for taking action (e.g. removing the registration under current terms and conditions) of those currently using .uk names to trade on-line in breach of the Distance Selling regulations and the e-Commerce Directive Regulation?

P.S. Note that while Amazon is one of the good guys (who do not charge extra for shipping to the Highlands and Island) this does not apply to those using Amazon Marketplace - where the situation is nearly as bad as among those trading on e-Bay. I was pleased to see that one of my favourite sites, play.com, is among the good guys alongside John Lewis and Marks & Spencer. Interestingly I have been able to find old films and TV series on play.com that I can no longer find via Google - says something about the new search algorythms. Perhaps the links are hidden behind the advertising funded dross.   

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Monday is the deadline for your views on rebuilding trust in .UK

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At the beginning of October Nominet launched a consultation on the potential introduction of a new service known as direct.uk. The logic behind the proposal is that .UK should give a reasonable measure of confidence that the registrant is physically located in the United Kingdom and not the Ukraine, Uzbekistan or "Uniwhere".

The background is the need for Nominet to put its house in order before BIS, DCMS, Home Office or the European Commission take control of Internet Addressing, perhaps via Ofcom or Trading Standards, the proposed EU regulation on electronic identities or the electronic signatures directive, in response to the growing pressures from law enforcement, tax authorities and others around the world.

The most vocal opposition comes from those seeking to preserve business models based on creating IPR in domain names to sell to the highest bidder. There are, however, also a number of practical issues to be addressed and some genuine concerns over the small print and the implementation plans.      

There are a number of ways in which to respond to the consultation either by completing an online form, by downloading the consultation and emailing your comments to direct@nominet.org.uk. If you require any further information please email the .uk Policy Secretariat.The closing date for the submission of responses is Monday 7th January 2013.

I have just circulated the draft Conservative Technology Forum submission to confirm that we have sufficient agreement for this be a collective response - as opposed to a personal response from myself and those of the other officers willing to be attributed. As an affiliated party group the role of CTF is to make suggestions for future Conservative policy.

The key message in the draft CTF submission is that .uk should be developed as a trust mark with realistic quality control if it is to have value. Perpetuating a situation where .uk  may refer to organisations based anywhere in the world will sooner or later render it value-less.

Even if the CTF submission is agreed by the executive it will have no official status - but we may do a press release listing naming those who have agreed that their support can be publicised and agreed to help organise political activities in support of implementation. Please visjt the CTF website and join if you would like to participate - including in a policy study to look at the implications of basing policy on on-line identity and trust on the assumption that we have copyright in our personal information and identities. 

The issue of the "right" to be anonymous over the Internet is rather different.  There is a need for a .anon that really is what it says on the tin. The current routines for disguising identity are wide open to abuse at the same time as giving false confidence to those who have good reasons for wishing to conceal their identities.

Good news on Universal and Tax Credits: Minister admits scale of current fraud

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Iain Duncan Smith's comments on the unknown scale of immigration-linked fraud with regard to tax credits indicates that ministers are at last beginning to get to grips with the issues that have to be addressed in order to ensure that the Universal Credit programme meets its objectives. In one of my blog entries shortly before Christmas I referred to the urgent need to join up activities across departmental borders in order to help make the programme a success. One of my concerns was the lack of operational communications between UKBA (whether front line staff or those in locations like Lunar House) and DWP (whether front-line staff or those in centres like Falkirk who are supposedly the experts in handling  immigrant related issues). In focussing on the issues of liaison with HMRC on PAYE Real Time Information and with Local Government on Tenancy and Housing Benefit fraud I forgot the need to address the tax credits problem.

My attention was drawn to The ONS Paper on Income and Wealth and the figures for tax credits in Table 2 on "Sources of total weekly household income by ettnic group". This shows that Tax Credits account for 1 - 2% of the income of White, Mixed, Indian or Chinese ethnic origan but 10% of those of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin. This group also derives a further 13% of household income from other benefits compared to 5% for those of Chinese origin and 4% for those of Indian origin. The Pakistani skills in working the UK tax and benfit system are well-honed. Back in Autumn 1968 I declined a job as a trainee Tax Inspector in Catford, partly because I was told I would spend my days explaining to Pakistanis that they could not claim a tax credit if they had never paid any tax. [The other reason was that the DP Manager  for STC Microwave and Line gave me a 10% pay rise].  

P.S. The ONS table should also help open the eye of those who say that immigrants are either a blessing or a curse. Indian and Chinese households appear to derive a smaller proportion of their income from benefits that any other other group - including the indigenous whites. Indeed the only group to derive a smaller proportion of their earnings from wages and salaries than the indigenous whites are the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.

Those who come here to acquire skills and work are nearly always a blessing.

Those who come here to live off crime and welfare ... 

The issue is how to tell the difference.

The answer is to use cross departmental data matching  - including with Local Government, Law Enforcement and the private sector personal information sources which now cover most of the world (helping the global financial services industries unravel on-line and other fraud).  That requires, however, information analysis skills (not just technology) which have been sorely neglected across Whitehall in recent years. More-over that situation looks set to rapidly deteriorate unless urgent action is taken to sort out the way in which the Civil Service Learning Framework has led to a collapse of departmental staff development and training plans. The benfits can,however, be measured in £billions, perhaps even the £tens of billions needed to help get public spending under control without penalising those who deserve help.

Will 2013 be the year when it became easier to get your broadband fixed than to change supplier?

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Until earlier this year I dual sourced my broadband connections for resilience. Then, shortly after I had upgraded to BT Infinity, the standby line went down and I began the saga of "have you tried another router ...".

I have yet to decide on my future standby facilities - save that I would prefer not to use a supplier reliant on unbundled lines via the same BT exchange, let alone cabinet. I also have a prejudice against the former cable TV operator - who failed to restore service during the run-up to Christmas some years ago - resulting in my move to Sky. That probably means I will now rely on BT wifi and my mobile connections (again two operators) for standby. But I live in London and am supposedly spolit for choice  - until I check which is actually operational for my post code.

Broadband is part of the critical national infrastructure on which businesses large and small and individuals, young and old, have come to rely. But how often does your connection to the Internet (landline, radio connection, e-mail server(s) etc.)?  And what happens when it does? Why is it so hard to even get trhough to the call centres in India which tells you to do do what you already donel. Why can you not pay an "Internet plumber" a call-out charge, to be wiaved by the operator if it does turn out to be their equipment or servers - and not the line? Why is customer service such an an alien concept to those who claim their products and services are so robust that it can be outsourced to the far side of the world 

The current situation regarding the choices available to those willing to pay more in order to receive better service is not confiend to communactions providers but does illustrate how far Ofcom has "wandered" from what Parliament assumed would be its principal duty. The statement of "statutory duties and regulatory principles" does indeed begin with its principal "general duty": This is "to further the interests of citizens". But it then gives a curiously selective breakdown of its "specific responsibilities". This omits many of the factors to which the 2003 Communications Act says it should "have regard" (from promoting competition and investment to considering the different interests of different ethnic and geographic communities). More particularly it does not mention section 5: "In performing their duty under this section of furthering the interests of consumers, OFCOM must have regard, in particular, to the interest of those consumers in respect of choice, price, quality of service and value for money."

The quality of services of most suppliers is critically dependent on that from BT Openreach.  The deterioration of their quality of service can be traced directly to local loop unbundling and the break up of previously integrated service operations at the same time as starting a race to bottom - wiping out BT's margins and investment case and giving the UK the cheapest, slowest and least reliable broadband in Western Europe.

The recovery may have begun. Indeed the recovery in BT's quality of service over the past 18 months is indeed impressive. But, as the following saga (on which I had my ears bent during my Christmas break away from the Westminster Village) indicates that they still have some way to go. And current regulatory and funding policy and priorities are not helping. The answer is not another round of BT bashing but an acceptance of the need to encourage both them and their competitors to invest in the quality of service that is essential for a  society that relies on its communication infrastructure. That includes enabling customers to choose to pay extra for resilience and support, including speed of response. That message is not, however, confined to the broadband infrastructure. It also applies to all those attempting to force us to use on-line services (from banking to healthcare) whcih has little or no routine for physical contact when the on-line service does not answer the question - or when the service goes down - hence, for example the Northern Rock panic.       

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I have worked with Malcolm for many years, both via EURIM (now the Digital Policy Alliance) of which he has been a Director since shortly after its formation and via the Conservative Technology Forum (which he chaired through the dog days of opposition).

I have long been amazed at his patience, courteousness (including with me when I have shown my dark side or failed to deliver what I have agreed), his grasp of both detail and context and his quiet determination. Malcolm now chairs the planning and review meetings of the DPA Digital Single Market stream himself and I look forward to seeing serious progress over the year ahead as this mark of support and respect, for his achievements to date and for those to come, encourages those in industry and the various consumer and citizen interest groups to work together to achieve results and not just make noise.  

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